Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Kanye West: on Americanah and how to talk about race in America

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I only devoted about fifteen minutes to this research, so I might have missed it, but I could not find any evidence that Barack Obama has ever called Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a jackass.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a novel about love and romance in Nigeria and America. Doing so, Adichie wrote a sharp, funny and honest depiction of life in Nigeria and race in America. In reading the interviews Adichie has given since Americanah won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, I have found that many interviewers seem befuddled by the fact that Adichie would approach the subject of race through the lens of a love story. I’m a reader, not a critic or an interviewer and I understand, support, appreciate the fact that Adichie tells her story of a Non-American Black who chooses to come to America and then chooses to leave through the lens of romance.

I understand the motivations of characters who are in love. When those characters ring with colour and complexity and depth the way that Ifemelu, Obinze, Dike and Aunty Uju do, I can feel what they are feeling. These are characters who laugh, cry, worry, act selflessly, act selfishly, crave sex, mourn loss. I do all of those things too! Adichie’s are characters who are real in a way rarely seen in fiction. If you can empathize with people who feel fully human (and if you can’t you’re probably a sociopath so you should probably talk to someone) then you can begin to understand a sliver of their perspective in the conversation about race, even if you are not African or American.

The novel is punctuated by the blog posts of Ifemelu, the female half of our star cross’d lovers, who leaves Nigeria and the love of her life to go and study in America.  In Ifemelu’s blog posts Adichie uses funny and sarcastic prose to fill in the blanks about The Race Situation in America by directly addressing the reader about blackness in America. For African-Americans or American Africans much of what is in the blog posts is probably funny in its familiarity. They’ve probably met a white guy with dreads who insists that America is post-race, or wondered how they managed to misplace your ethnic identity and transform from Jamaican into just “black” somewhere past the customs line at LAX. For white readers and/or non-American readers the blog posts act as punctuation for the action encountered by the characters. We know we like Ifemelu and Obinze and we know they love each other. Thanks to the blog posts we can better understand the forces external to the characters and their relationships, and how those forces affect the characters and the relationships that we so care about.

One of my favourite complements to Americanah is this discussion of the book between Adichie and Zadie Smith at the Schomburg Center earlier this year.

(Sadly the video won’t embed but you can watch it here)

What both Smith and Adichie note is their surprise, knowing the history of African-Americans, at coming to America and not finding the place burning, at not finding black people angrier and white people more understanding of how the terrible history of Africans in America has contributed to current race relations. Adichie admits that she probably couldn’t have written a novel as honest about race in America as Americanah if she herself were American, because the American Black is expected be good and to be quiet on the subject of race.

Think now about what happens to Americans, particularly American males, when they try to tackle the same subjects as Adichie. When they stand up and insist that America is not post-race and when they dare to be angry or unappreciative of their role in this “post-race” America. Do these Black American male artists get interviews on NPR and talks hosted by the NYPL? Are these Black American artists hailed for their virtuosity and boundless empathy by the likes of Dave Eggers? Or do they get called a jackass by the Black American male president of the United States?

 

 

 

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